Sep 20 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #13: Experimentation & Doubt

VBS is over now. I hadn’t posted a VBS update in a while simply because we had reached that point in the project where we were in the thick of doing the heavy lifting–building sets, making costumes, creating and acquiring props, and rehearsing. Sometimes that can get kind of hairy, as we don’t often have time to test our concepts before we put them into production. Frequently I am asking people to do a lot of work on what I hope will work, and for some reason they trust me that it will make sense and actually work later. A lot of what I hope will work is based on the countless hours of behind-the-scenes special effects I have watched ever since I was a kid and the formal art training I received.

Every single VBS goes through this phase where it seems like the project is doomed to failure: the special effects aren’t working right, the props can’t be found, the script has a giant flaw, or the rehearsals aren’t going well. Part of the problem is that I write these scripts to be directed by Spielberg with special effects by Industrial Light & Magic, all funded by a James Cameron budget. Then reality sets in and we have to start making do with what we can afford on a small church VBS budget.

Some things didn’t work out as well as I hoped–the bamboo forest, for example, was better than having nothing, but wasn’t this awesome, thick, lush forest of brilliant green; it turns out bamboo begins to brown almost as soon as it is cut, and besides that, it smells like locker room feet as it dries.

But other things worked out brilliantly, like the special effect we built to make it appear that I threw a dagger into a piece of bamboo that held open a deadly trap. Or the breakaway table that shattered when struck by our antagonist’s prop sword. Or the papier-mache rocks that looked like real stone.

The real fact is none of this happens without a lot of work and a lot of manpower (and womanpower), and none of what we accomplish would be possible without the diligent labor of a number of people willing to give this stuff a try. Our volunteers have spent who knows how much time cutting bamboo, drilling 2x4s, painting cups, gluing foam, layering papier-mache, and who knows what else.

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Jun 1 2013

VBS Development Diary #12: Costumes

I spent 2 hours in a fabric store yesterday and it was awesome.

Lemme ‘splain!

We were shopping for fabric for costumes. I don’t know fabric–I have always avoided any kind of textile work because it seems tedious to me–except for that one time I made a Nightcrawler plushie.

So we’re trying to find fabric for six costumes that won’t look cheezy, will be just the right pattern and shade, won’t be too hot for the actor, and won’t be too expensive. I had the opportunity to be that annoying director who doesn’t know what he wants, but will know it when he sees it.

After a few years of running VBS skits I found what every other performer probably already knows, which is that stage/film performance is a collaborative effort. This is the first year that we haven’t just pieced costumes together from what we can find at second hand stores. Mrs. Pastor made the first two costumes–the ones for the heroine and villainess. In my specifications for the villainess’s outfit I specified that I wanted it to be black silk/satin with black embroidered patterns. That fabric wasn’t available, and she tried to send me pictures of what was available, but I couldn’t see them. She just went with her gut and picked a fabric that was black satin with wide-spaced gold patterns.

When I first saw the costume, I thought, “I was expecting black on black.” But I quickly realized that what she had made was actually better than I requested, and did more to convey what I really wanted from the character–that she was a woman who was rather vain and who liked to spend money on nice clothes because she deserved them.

Anyway, we found all of the fabrics that we want to use, and all the fabrics we won’t use because they are crazy expensive ($18/yard). Now we just have to find some more patterns for our male costumes. Apparently there are only three Asian/Oriental costume patters produced in the last 40 years and we already located and purchased two of them (thanks to several hours of googling by Allison).

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Feb 12 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #9: Chinese Language

As part of my ankle-deep immersion for his VBS I have been learning Chinese. I am using a number of apps, but mostly I am listening to podcasts from The podcasts are great for picking up the language and they have lots of notes about the culture, but they will email you incessantly, and you should really be careful about what paid options you are actually paying for and/or what options they will auto-renew your account for without telling you.

Contrary to what I expected, Chinese is pretty easy to learn so far–especially compared to Welsh, in my opinion.

The sentence structure, at least for the simple sentences I have learned is similar to English–subject, verb, object. Declarative statements become interrogative questions with the addition of a particle at the end of the sentence. The greatest thing–no conjugating verbs–verbs have only one form.

I can’t read a single character (besides the one for ‘middle’, but I can hear, identify, and speak several words and make a few simple sentences.

The hardest part? Probably learning the tones. According to the instructors there are only about 400 sound combinations in Chinese. However, there are 4 or 5 tones, and changing the tone changes the word, whereas in English changing the tone gives some auditory cues as to the intended meaning, or maybe whether the word or sentence is meant as a statement of a question.

I’m enjoying it a lot, and maybe eventually (after smatterings of French, Spanish, Welsh, Hebrew, and Greek) I could attain bilingual status.

Right now, I still just know enough to get me in trouble.

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Jan 15 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #7: Title

It can be tough picking a good title. You want something that communicates the overall theme of your production, and it needs to be able to reach kids who have only been reading for a year. Plus, while you, as the writer and director, have been steeping yourself in Chinese food, language, culture, and movies, your audience likely has not. You might think the title Enter the Legend of the Savage Iron Monkey Fist is hilarious—and it is—but the kids, their parents, and even your fellow workers aren’t going to get it.

It also needs to communicate the right tone. Enter the Dragon has quite a different tone than Kung Fu Hustle. When I first started on this year’s VBS I liked the title Curse of the Black Mantis. However, the focus was all wrong in what it told the audience. I made a list of words in every kung fu movie title, and tried them out against words and names in my VBS:

Jade Wind, Black Mantis
Shadow/Legend of the Jade Wind
Wrath/Fury of the Black Mantis
Shadow of the Black Mantis

I eventually settled on Legend of the Jade Wind, which I felt said everything I wanted to about the skit.

Once you have a title, you can proceed to logo design.

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Jan 13 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #6: Sound

Starting in 2009 with The Quest for the Lost City of Gold we started incorporating a digital soundboard into our VBS skit. I downloaded a program for my Mac called Sound Byte that lets you set up virtual racks of sounds, customize options for each sound, and assign them to keyboard commands. I needed someone to run the sound board, which I had just trialed and tested myself.

I chose Rahne, my then 12 year old. She was fairly tech savvy, and I didn’t know who else to hand it to. She has run the sound board every year since then, except last year when she had a part in the skit. After the skit she told me she wanted her sound board back.

Anyway when we get close to time to begin rehearsals I search around online for sounds to download. There are several sites that have royalty-free sounds free for download, and you can find sound effects CDs at pretty much any decent music store. Then you take a sound, drag it onto a button, and then assign options for it–looping, volume, when to start or stop the sound, whether or not to play it over the top of other sounds vs. being stopped by other sounds. This was incredibly handy when we had to have an ancient Mayan temple set collapse; we layered three different sounds—a low rumble, a stone-scraping-on-stone sound, and a second rumble—to give us a really colossal crash.

We also use sound effects to help pull off some of our special effects—but that’s another post.

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Jan 11 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #5: Music

For the past two years Rahne has composed the theme music. For Law of the West, our wild west VBS, I was looking for music that would fit in with a John Ford / John Wayne / Roy Rogers good guy kind of western—not a spaghetti western. When she was working on it, we listened to a lot of music from classic westerns—both what I wanted and what I didn’t want.

The best example of what I didn’t want for our VBS, despite my love for the music, was the theme from For a Few Dollars More. Ennio Morricone’s haunting theme really conveyed the grit and dirt and decay and moral landscape from the movie perfectly—it just didn’t suit the tone of our Bible school skit.

We listened to a number of good pieces, including Red River and Silverado, but the best example of what we did want was Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven. It wasn’t that I wanted, ‘Hey, can you rip of The Magnificent Seven, without sounding like you ripped off The Magnificent Seven? What I did want was something that, like The Magnificent Seven, conveyed a sense of good, morality, heroism, and triumph.  A wild west where men are men, women are women, and good guys wear white hats and never cheat or shoot anyone in the back.

And I think she nailed it. When she composed her first theme song in 2011 for Adventure on the High Seas, our pirate themed VBS, her music definitely sounded nice and piratey, but the overall composition was fairly rudimentary. Last year’s theme was more of an overture with four distinct movements, with the fourth movement a variation of the first.

Again, we have spent a lot of time listening to music. We have found some decent traditional music, as well as a lot of stuff that sounds more suited for a Chinese restaurant. One shining star however is Tan Dun, composer for Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

A couple of weeks ago Rahne, Elsa, and I had kind of a jam session–both of the girls on piano and me on djembe drum and pennywhistle. Last Wednesday Rahne and Amelia got together to go over it some more with Rahne on piano and Amelia on violin.

We aren’t there yet, but the music is getting there. I am looking into buying an erhu, aka Chinese fiddle, so that we can get a more authentic sound once composition is complete.


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Jan 9 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #4: Immersion

Whenever I start work on a new VBS, I try to immerse myself in in the theme, especially if I feel I am not sufficiently familiar with it to do it justice. Last year when working on our Wild West themed VBS we watched a lot of westerns. Not just any westerns–since we were going for more of a classic, white hat, western we watched a lot of Roy Rogers and an old John Wayne movie where he and a couple other cowboys wore tall hats and big scarves. One of the cowboys was nicknamed ‘Lullaby.’ No-one got hurt on-screen, but in the course of the story an old man and a little girl got killed in a wagon wreck.

This year in order to get a better flavor for he story we want to communicate I have been immersing myself in Chinese culture: I’ve watched a lot of kung fu / wuxia movies, I’m learning to eat with chopsticks, watching documentaries about China, and looked at hundreds of pictures of clothing, hairstyles, armor, architecture, and the Chinese countryside. I’ve also tried to look up some cultural taboos to watch for.

I don’t have any illusions of becoming Ang Lee before August, but I at least don’t want to make something offensive to Chinese people and/or do a sloppy job for having based a VBS story on what i have learned from American pop culture.

I’m really enjoying it. I’ve seen a lot of terrible movies (Butterfly Swords, World of Drunken Master), discovered a couple of excellent ones (Red Cliff, Little Big Soldier), and seen a couple that were kind of a mixed bag (House of Flying Daggers, Wing Chun).

Anyway, one day I discovered wushu, a Chinese sport derived from martial arts. I was watching a video describing the different styles, and saw an athlete perform a demonstration of Drunken Style Kung Fu, and it gave me an idea. I changed the master tinkerer/archer to a swordsman, gave him a motivation, and came up with a character that I believe will be both interesting and humorous.

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Jan 8 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #3: Refinement

The story and script are constantly refined through every stage of the process. The greatest refinements are earliest in the process, and the finer ones later–providing no glaring story problems are discovered.

When we first plotted this story we had three villains, each with specific attributes. I had an idea for one of the bad guys to be kind of a really intelligent, master tinkerer who had made his own clockwork/steampunk armor/exoskeleton, kind of an ancient China version of a cross between Iron Man and Kroenen from Hellboy (wihout the massive crewpy factor). Then we played around with him being a master archer, armed with a drum-equipped repeating crossbow.

However, the character wasn’t so much a character as he was a gimmick–he had no personality, no motivation, and he wasn’t interesting at all.

Then, immersion made an impact.

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Jan 5 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #2: The Joke

It was Sherry’s idea to do our VBS themes on a five-year rotation, that way we would only have to write five skits, develop five sets, and 5 sets of materials. And since VBS is aimed at 1st through 6th grades, the most you (as a kid) would ever see the same skit would be twice—five years apart. Brilliant!

So last year we were in the middle of set construction and rehearsals for Vacation Bible School 2012, Law of the West, and I was standing around talking to Brock and Jake. Someone brought up what we were going to do for VBS 2013, which would be our fifth year. We had already done some of the great, classic, storytelling themes: pirates,cowboys, knights, and jungle adventurers. We just needed a fifth theme.

Some of us had previously mentioned maybe doing a Sherlock Holmes style mystery. I said we should do a kung-fu movie theme. We cracked a few jokes and had a few laughs and then got back to work.

I was completely kidding, of course. What a dumb idea. A kung fu movie. How would we do it? What possible story would we tell?

But for some reason I never forgot it….

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Jan 4 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #1

Every year since 2004* I either write or co-write the script for the skits that we use in our church’s vacation Bible school, as well as acting, directing / co-directing, designing the logo, and creating and/or supervising the production of the sets, props, and costumes.

It can be massively rewarding, and a ton of fun. However, while it is rewarding, it is also a lot of work—about six to eight hours of organized work on set building and rehearsal per week for six weeks, then  a couple of Saturday practices, besides what I do at home writing, editing and designing. When you get through you are completely exhausted: physically, mentally, and emotionally.

And so I was thinking about bowing out this year. I thought about bowing out for VBS 2013 before VBS 2012 was even over.

December 2 the girls and I watched Hoodwinked with the writer and director commentary. I’d seen the movie a dozen times, and listened to the commentary once before, and it was still awesome hearing it again. After the movie we were sitting there discussing the commentary, the movie, and the nature of good movies and good storytelling in general.

“Lemme bounce an idea off of ya,” I told them. I kind of gave them an idea of what had been rolling around in my head. I hate to even call it an idea it was so vague; more like one of those ‘headaches with pictures,’ as Fry would say.

Less than an hour later the three of us had developed and recorded the entire plot for VBS 2013.


* We didn’t do a VBS 2007-2008

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